Press Releases

1999 Releases

Women are More Likely than Men to Believe in Technological Hazards

For immediate release: February 03, 1999 

Boston, MA--In two complementary studies released in this month's issue of the journal Technology, people's degree of confidence in claims of technological hazard is measured using survey techniques. One study analyzed the confidence levels of the general public; the other study analyzed differences in the confidence levels of lay people and scientists. The major finding was that women are more likely than men to express confidence that technological hazards covered in the mass media are real. The gender difference was found among scientists as well as among lay people.

The studies are based on two surveys, one of a representative sample of 1,000 Americans obtained using random-digit-dial telephone methods; the other a sample of 260 scientists obtained via mail using addresses of elected members of the Institute of Medicine and authors of peer-reviewed scientific journal articles about technological hazards.

Each respondent was asked to rate eight technological hazards: electromagnetic fields from power lines, global warming from carbon dioxide pollution, dust and particles in city air, natural radon gas in homes, medical x-rays, depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer by man-made chemicals, environmental tobacco smoke, and pesticide residues on foods. These hazards were chosen based on a keyword search of national print media stories for a two-year period.

Respondents expressed confidence on a 10-point scale, where 10 means complete confidence that the hazard exists and 0 means complete confidence that the hazard does not exist. Heavy smoking of cigarettes and listening to relaxing music were used to define the extremes of the scale. The survey was not designed to measure how widespread or serious the hazards might be.

When the perceptions of lay people and scientists were compared, some agreements and disagreements were found. Both scientists and lay people expressed the most confidence in hazard claims made about environmental tobacco smoke and depletion of the ozone layer by man-made chemicals. Scientists were less confident than lay people in hazard claims made about pesticides on foods and electromagnetic fields. Scientists were more likely than lay people to believe that hazards from medical x-rays exist.

The lead author of the study is Professor John D. Graham, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Risk Analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health. Professor Graham notes that "the good news is that people don't believe everything they hear in the media about technological hazards. The bad news is that the public's degree of confidence in some hazards, electromagnetic fields from power lines and pesticides on foods, does not appear to be supported by scientific opinion." Professor Graham urges journalists and reporters to report contrary scientific opinions about speculative technological hazards.

Prof. Graham continues: "Our findings are consistent with previous studies showing that women have more concerns about technological hazards than do men. The fact that this gender difference is apparent among scientists as well as laypeople is interesting because it suggests that the difference is not attributable to the fact that men are better educated in science and math than women."

A preliminary finding of the study was that white men in particular are skeptical of technological hazard claims made in the media. The role of race in hazard perception needs to be further studied, Professor Graham and colleagues note.

For further information, please contact:

Robin Herman
Office of Communications
Harvard School of Public Health
677 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
Phone: 617-432-4752